Violence Puts a Damper on Afghan Elections

An election campaign wall and (below) the just released Lebanese engineer

By S. Mudassir Ali Shah

KABUL, August 23(2005): As the US-backed Afghan leader Friday called on his compatriots to catapult sincere people to power in the mid-September parliamentary elections, several murderous attacks on politicians and security personnel in different areas amply highlighted continued instability in Afghanistan.

President Hamid Karzai, addressing a well-attended ceremony marking his country’s 86th Independence Day at the Ghazi National Stadium in the heart of Kabul, tended to list his administration’s achievements over the last three years and have the unsuspecting audience believe Afghanistan had turned the corner.

Coinciding with the nation’s Independence Day, murderous assaults in the capital Kabul, eastern Kunar, southern Zabul and Ghazni provinces left dead several people including a politician, a US marine, an Afghan soldier and two civilians. Two US servicemen had perished on Thursday in a firefight in Kunar, where a huge offensive against combatants has been underway.

Friday’s fatalities came hard on the heels of a stabbing assault on a senior official of the Joint Electoral Management Body, tasked with organizing the vote, in the western Herat province. Gul Ahmad Nazari, JEMB’s regional coordinator, was rushed to a Kabul hospital in serious condition.

As usual, the gunmen gave clueless Afghan security personnel the slip after wounding the JEMB representative, who was also robbed of cash and valuables. The incident drew instant flak from the UN-Afghan poll panel, whose spokesman Sultan Ahmad Bahin denounced the attack as a cowardly act.

Without touching on the trail of murder and mayhem or the threats being hurled at female candidates by militants, Karzai told the gathering his government was taking strides towards establishing a democratic order and banishing the twin menace of drugs and terrorism.

‘Successes’ achieved in the ongoing campaign against insurgency, the jihad against narcotics and the march towards democracy were the running refrains of his didactic speech, which sought to play on popular perceptions of Afghans’ fierce independence and courage in the face of anti-social scoundrels.

Oddly enough, the president himself appears to have little – if any – interest in practicing what he is preaching to galvanize his nation into standing up to warlords and gunmen, who remain ensconced in the central government. As long as these elements continue to hold government position, observers and analysts believe, overdue administrative reforms will elude Afghanistan.

But Karzai sounded optimistic about the future of a “nation all poised to enter a new phase” in its turbulent history in the wake of the elections, marking the culmination of the Bonn Agreements. Before the process comes to a close, a dispassionate analysis of gains and losses will be in order.

Although international aid worth billions of dollars has pored into the country since the UN-sponsored Bonn Accords, the social sector remains crippled, schools and hospitals are two few and too ill-equipped to be any practical help, the bureaucracy lamentably seems to have no clear sense of direction and the political leadership stays totally devoid of gumption.

One cannot take issue with the emphasis Karzai places on the election of patriotic leaders capable of measuring up to multiple challenges facing Afghanistan. However, the clarion call – coming from a leader hostage to rank political expediency and cohabiting with criminals of the darkest dye – rings hammy, lip-deep and counterfactual.

In a land blighted by abject poverty, unabated drug smuggling and an unrelenting insurgency, the political leadership can be rightly expected to play hardball on issues of national import. But the incumbent government is thoroughly bereft of this badly-needed political will to deal with gangsters, pressure groups and other flash-point concerns.

Tactfully skirting critical questions such as corruption in high places, human rights abuses across the country and crude powers of unwieldy groups as well as individuals, Karzai went on renewing his resolve to purge Afghanistan of drugs. One wishes him warp-speed success, but he will have to take on obstinate men within his administration to work out the kinks in his strategy for stopping poppy cultivation and drug trafficking.

The day the election campaign opened officially, an explosion in the southern Kandahar province killed one policeman and wounded 14 others.

The remote-controlled bomb hidden in a vegetable cart hit a bus filled with police officers driving into the center of the former Taliban stronghold from a training school.

Scared by persistent threats from militants, women hopefuls have adopted an ultra-cautious approach to electioneering. With 27 per cent (68) seats reserved for them in the lower house and one-sixth in the upper house, they are yet to be seen on the stump.

“A widespread lack of security means many women candidates may curtail their campaigning. The Afghan government and international monitors must take special measures to protect women from attacks and intimidation,” the Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Disillusioned with the current dispensation, some senior political figures have rejected a presidential system as inconsistent with their aspirations. Former interior minister and Karzai’s main challenger in last year’s presidential race, Yunus Qanuni has vowed he would try to introduce a parliamentary system in line with popular demands. Heading a grand opposition alliance, Qanuni says he will also push for amending constitutional clauses that concentrate too much power in the hands of an individual.

More than 6,000 candidates, most of whom have already plastered campaign posters on walls and lampposts around the nation’s capital and in the 34 provinces, have been authorized to hit the airwaves.

According to JEMB’s formula, every contender will have a free two-minute slot on local television stations and a five-minute slot on radio.

Thanks to a patently flawed vetting procedure, many former commanders linked to war crimes and a small number of Taliban dissidents have been allowed to contest the polls scheduled for September 18. Given the relevance of gun power, male primacy and ‘checkbook politics’ to the ballot, they are certain to be returned.

Coming back to the security question, the United States too hopes the first post-Taliban legislative election would be held in a peaceful manner, and that insurgents have no ability to scuttle it. In his maiden media appearance in Kabul after replacing Zalmay Khalilzad, Ambassador Ronald Neumann asserted Taliban were no longer in a position to disrupt the polls.

Neumann’s assertion is apparently based on the sheer numbers of security forces – about 20,000 US troops to be deployed to the shambolic south and east and 10,000 NATO peacekeepers in the north and west in addition to 80,000 Afghan policemen to secure the elections.

In a way these forces have already fanned out across the country, but the pre-poll bloodshed knows no end.

Belying the assertion of the international coalition led by the US that militants are on the run as a result of anti-insurgency operations, Taliban have stepped up their activities in the south and east in recent months. In the bloody build-up to the election, almost 1,000 people have been killed in militant-linked violence over the last few months.

Another stark reminder of the worsening law and order came Wednesday evening when a leading Lebanese company – Soufan Industries – wound up its operations in Afghanistan to save a kidnapped engineer’s life. “We are ready to quit Afghanistan for the sake of Engineer Safiuddin Reza’s release from Taliban captivity,” the company’s Vice President Anwar Fahid Soufan said.

Literally kowtowing to the captors’ condition for freeing the engineer, Fahid Soufan communicated his pullout decision to Taliban spokesman Latifullah Hakimi by phone. Reza, hailing from Lebanon’s fourth largest city of Sour, was freed in a remote area of the Zabul province Thursday morning, as the government kept a mum on the sordid affair.

Offering gainful jobs to many Afghans and foreigners, the Soufan Industries had been playing a key role in Afghanistan’s infrastructure development over the last four years. It had installed generators across the country, whose power sector is in a shambles as a result of decades of strife.

Unable to cope with the security challenge in a decided manner, Afghan officials frequently take an ostrich-like stance and blame the media for “playing up minor incidents.” On Thursday, Interior Ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal, who had vehemently denied the kidnapping of the engineer a day earlier, refused to answer a volley of phone calls from this writer.

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